Mobile news

Going cold turkey on smartphones: A day unplugged

At times like this, a quick Google search for technical terms using my phone could have spared me some blushes. Instead, I found myself pausing the interview more frequently to clarify with my interviewees what the terms meant and how things worked. To my surprise, doing so probably gave me a better understanding of the concepts, and punchier quotes for my story than if I had just googled the terms.

After the interview, I had another obstacle: getting a cab to my lunch appointment in Lavender, which I was certainly going to be late for.

Aware of my no-phone challenge, the interviewees told me that trying to flag down a cab by the roadside in this corner of Jurong West was highly unlikely to be successful – a trend that is bound to worsen with time, given the decline in the number of taxi drivers in Singapore and the rise of ride-hailing apps.

Sympathising with my plight, an interviewee kindly offered me a lift to Lavender as she was headed towards a place in the area.

Her colleague, too, let me tether my laptop to her phone’s hot spot while we were in the car, so that I could e-mail my date that I would be late. Thankfully, my lunch companion was aware that I would be uncontactable and was game to play along in spite of the trouble.

It was becoming increasingly clear to me that I wouldn’t make it through my phone-free day without the understanding and kindness of others.

This was true again when I ventured to Tai Seng to collect a present from a Lego store in an industrial park. I had only the store’s name and the train station that is closest to it, so I troubled the staff at the ticket office for directions.

I received thorough directions, but I had no phone to guide me through the industrial estate where the store is located. Again, I briefly got lost.

In the afternoon, I needed more help at a cafe, where I went to get some work done. Only digital menus were available via a QR code found on each table. Apologetically, I explained to the waitress that I did not have a phone with me, and she summoned a colleague to take my order and facilitate cash payment, the old-fashioned way.

If more people were to go cold turkey on their phones, this could be an increasingly familiar scene as more businesses have adopted digital as their main, if not only, mode of payment. Some businesses, like Decathlon, have gone entirely cashless with self-checkout counters. At McDonald’s, customers will most likely have to queue for a longer time at the physical counter than if they were to order at a digital kiosk.

Once I was connected to the cafe’s Wi-Fi for guests, I was inundated with dozens of e-mails and messages on desktop versions of WhatsApp and Telegram. These took me at least 10 minutes to clear, as I was distracted by incessant notifications.

Push notifications have been a bane for productivity. A study by the University of California, Irvine, showed that it can take at least 20 minutes for the average worker to get back to the task at hand after being distracted, such as by a notification.

Given the hundreds of app notifications that fight for users’ attention daily, it is not surprising that productivity takes a hit. I counted 350 alerts on my phone on Dec 20 alone.

That said, I struggle to think of how I can strike a healthier balance between being updated and being completely focused, given my need to stay on top of current affairs as a reporter.

Nearly all Singaporeans – 97 per cent of them – have smartphones today, according to the Infocomm Media Development Authority, making my fish-out-of-water experience unlikely for most.

But I sure hope society does not neglect those who are simply not tech-savvy or who choose not to adopt all digital apps, which is perfectly understandable given the scam scourge in Singapore.

What I appreciated most during my digital abstinence was time off social media. Admittedly, I have a habit of scrolling through social media and listening to podcasts in the background whenever I don’t need to fully focus.

Statista puts the global daily social media usage time at around 2½ hours, which pales compared with the three hours or so I spend online on freer days. The pull of endless scrolling has entangled my brain like invasive digital ivy, so it is about time for a digital detox.

Cutting out incessant scrolling online will not be easy. During my phone-free day, my brain struggled to adjust to the silence during my commute, where music once filled the void. I became restless, finding something to arrest my attention as my brain craved the dopamine hits associated with digital interactions.

Yet, it was worth the adjustment. A rare focus bloomed at work; conversations crackled with newfound attentiveness.

Inspired, I muted my work notifications and banished social media apps for the majority of my personal trip to Bangkok, to be fully present with loved ones.

Maybe, amid our daily tech-fuelled frenzy, the real gift we can give, and receive, this holiday season will emerge from the quiet spaces between clicks and scrolls.

How smartphone addiction takes root

Beneath the promise of convenience and productivity enabled by phones today lies the hidden threat of addiction and social isolation.

Authorities around the world have begun to take notice. In May, the United States’ top health official issued a warning about the “profound risk of harm” that social media could have on the mental health of young people.

Phone addiction is powered by our brain’s craving for dopamine, a hormone involved in addiction – to pornography or drugs, for instance.

Small, satisfying doses of dopamine are released in a person’s brain each time he looks at the screen of his device, explaining why people have developed an incessant need to check their phones, said American psychiatrist Anna Lembke, who is the chief of Stanford University’s addiction medicine clinic, in her book, Dopamine Nation.

There is also no shortage of studies that correlate excessive social media use and harm with young people’s poor mental well-being.

A poll of some 28,000 young adults by Sapien Labs, which studies mental health, found that children who received phones at a younger age had worse mental well-being.

In Singapore, phones connect nearly everyone, but many struggle to take their eyes off the screen. 


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.